Slow train to science
15 August 2017

Sex and the Spineless

We open a can of worms to learn how pheromones  help invertebrates regulate population.

Roundworms are pretty small. If you took one particular species, Caenorhabditis elegans, and lined them up mouth to anus along the bottom of this page, you'd have an invertebrate parade about 184 organisms long. They reproduce quickly, don't eat much and are pretty quiet, which are some of the reasons they make great model organisms for scientists to study.

Chemist Rebecca Butcher spends a lot of time in the company of worms at her University of Florida laboratory. Among other things, she studies the pheromones they secrete in order to communicate with each other. In a project involving high magnetic fields, Butcher and her group studied pheromones that roundworms emit when their numbers surge, and which cause the worms to change to a state called the dauer larval stage.

Butcher explains: "They realize, 'Oh, our population density is really high, we're going to run out of food! We'd better enter this dauer larval stage. That will allow us to survive this period where there are too many worms and too little food.'"

Sound intriguing? Hop on this Slow Train to Science, and we'll take you on the journey of this research project and explain why those of us with backbones should care. (You could also try taking this trip by wormhole, but we can't guarantee your safe return.)

— Text by KRISTEN COYNE. Illustration by CAROLINE MCNIEL


Roundworms Infographic


Read more about the Butcher Laboratory at the University of Florida.

Last modified on 20 September 2017